Chefs and TV cooks can be a little scornful of dried herbs. Mary Berry is a big pro-fresh herb exponent and Skye Gyngell writes in A Year in My Kitchen that ‘dried herbs (possibly with the exception of mint) are not worth using’ and only ‘contribute a musty staleness to a dish’. Of course, I love fresh herbs too and grow quite a few in pots in my garden (as in the photo above) but to dismiss dried herbs is rather missing the point. They are not so much second best as different, and sometimes that different flavour note is better in a dish than the fresh one.
Fresh herbs of course add a vibrancy that is essential to some dishes. A tabbouleh wouldn’t be the same thing at all if made with dried parsley (and I have to say I don’t think I ever use dried parsley, despite all I’m saying here). I love to roughly snip fresh herbs into salads: parsley, chives, rocket, oregano, basil. I sometimes make a gorgeous chicken dish – a Carluccio recipe that I don’t think I’ve yet put on the blog – which uses loads of fresh herbs; again, dried just wouldn’t do.
I always have a pot of basil growing on a sunny windowsill in my kitchen. (It doesn’t do very well outside in London.) I don’t think I’ve ever bought dried basil but fresh is essential for making things like pesto.
A simple salad of tasty ripe tomatoes, thickly sliced and dressed simply with a little olive oil and sea salt with a scattering of torn fresh basil leaves is divine.
The ready availability of fresh herbs is a relatively new thing, though. When I married in the late 70s you couldn’t buy courgettes all year round let alone a pot of basil or thyme in the supermarket. Growing your own is all very well if you have a garden, balcony or even windowsill, but they’re still not available all the year round, other than perhaps rosemary from a bush in the garden. Thyme doesn’t die down completely but isn’t as good in the winter. You can’t go picking fresh parsley, tarragon, oregano or chives. Packets from the supermarket fill the gap but don’t last well and I find I’m always throwing half-used ones away. People find ways of freezing, maybe chopping up; you can preserve in oil. But whatever you do that isn’t absolutely fresh then it’s a different thing and you can’t necessarily do what you’d do with real fresh, straight from the garden. So why not dried?
I found myself succumbing to the whole fresh herb snobbery until I went to Greece 4 years ago. Here I found Yiannis’s wonderful Aladdin’s cave of herbs drying in bunches hung from the low ceiling, as well as mixes made up for different uses – culinary, teas and medicinal. I started to see that Greeks and Turks (from when I went to Istanbul) often choose to use dried herbs. Herbs that are native to hotter countries tend to dry well. They may lose their freshness but this is compensated by the the deeper, more concentrated flavour you’ll have.
One herb that is great in both fresh and dried forms is oregano. Since that holiday in Greece I’ve been growing some in the garden in the summer. I’m growing a couple of varieties this year (above) but one had become so large I picked a few stems to dry in my kitchen.
Apart from giving out their beautiful perfume into my kitchen, once dried they crush easily between fingers and impart a glorious flavour to dishes. Drying your own herbs in this way is a totally different experience to those little pots one buys – even though I have quite a few as you can see! And once autumn is here, to make the most of your harvest and bring some inside to dry for the winter months really does carry a taste and smell of summer into your home for the cold months.
Just as you wouldn’t use dried basil to make pesto, there are some dishes that call for dried herbs. Like these little balls of homemade labneh, rolled in dried oregano and preserved in olive oil.
When making rubs for meats, dried herbs usually work better and are often the better choice for marinades or dressings. I’ve become a big fan of Za’atar since using so many of Ottolenghi’s recipes. Made from dried thyme, toasted sesame and salt, this is a wonderful mix that entirely relies on the dried herb rather than fresh. Ottolenghi talks in Ottolenghi the Cookbook of dried mint going ‘very well with yogurt’, pointing out that it doesn’t discolour as fresh mint does. I use dried mint in tzatziki. Dried herbs are great in mixes like Herbes de Provence.
Dried herbs take longer to release their flavour so add them early in cooking, while fresh herbs should be added towards or at the end. Of course a big problem with dried herbs is their freshness. I may manage to dry my own oregano and perhaps some thyme, but like any adventurous cook, a new recipe often requires a herb or spice that isn’t on your shelves. Make sure you regularly replace any dried herbs you’ve bought. I make a note on my jars of when I opened them and try not to use ones older than 6 months, but the real test is smell – do they smell of the herb or just musty?
Both fresh and dried herbs have a place in my kitchen. I wouldn’t want to live without either kind.